What Donnie Yen Is Doing to Stop Asian Typecasting in Hollywood4 min readReading Time: 3 minutes
Indeed, Yen is no stranger to you and me, and in fact to anyone living in Asia. Since his portrayal of Cantonese Wing Chun master Ip Man in 2008, Yen has gained international recognition. Following the discovery of his older films like SPL: Sha Po Lang (2005) and Flashpoint (2007), and new ones such as Special ID (2013) and Kungfu Jungle (2014), Yen was further propelled to stardom.
Now, he has become a worldwide brand for bringing kick-ass mixed martial arts into his films. It goes without saying – he has received no shortfall on Hollywood offers.
But he is not just taking any script.
Mindful of the negative Asian stereotypes that are allowed to run amok in Hollywood, Yen is refusing to play roles that buy into such stereotypes. And it appears that this mindset had persisted long before the success of the Ip Man franchise.
In a 2008 interview given to the Hollywood Reporter, Yen mentioned, “What matters is a decent script and a decent character. Hollywood studios only want to put Chinese actors in their films to help break into the Chinese market – they will never let you play the roles that Tom Cruise or Robert De Niro play.” As such, he has even turned down scripts from major Hollywood productions like The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008).
In recent years, Yen has been focusing on films that offer him strong and positive characters, roles not conventionally given to Asian actors in Hollywood. He hopes to be seen as a role model for young children and break new ground for the Chinese actors that come after him. “That would be an honour and a great mission that I would like to achieve,” Yen said in an interview with TimeOut. In line with his philosophy, he has taken up roles in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) and XXX: Return of Xander Cage (2017).
In Rogue One, Yen plays a blind wisecracking warrior monk called Chirrut Îmwe. He forms part of the Rebel Alliance, which fights to overthrow an oppressive and autocratic regime known as the Galactic Empire. Fun fact: Chirrut was not originally blind, but it was Yen who suggested this change to director Gareth Edwards! He said in an interview with Tatler, “I wasn’t going to take whatever role they gave me and be another Chinese kung fu master.”
In XXX: Return of Xander Cage (2017), Yen plays Xiang, an xXx special agent leading a team of four skilled individuals to steal Pandora’s Box, a device capable of controlling satellites to crash at specific locations as warheads. He works against Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) at the beginning of the film, but later joins forces with him to save the world.
Yen’s performances in both films were loved by audiences and critics alike. Despite XXX’s boilerplate plot, Screen Anarchy cited Yen as the highlight of the film and stealing every scene which he is in. In an official poll for Star Wars, he was also voted the audiences’ favourite Rogue One character. Score one for Asian representation, and score two for Donnie Yen!
With Yen’s success in both films, it seems we can look forward to seeing him in more roles that defy expectations. Back in Asia, when Yen is not busy filming in Hollywood, he is also working hard on honing his acting skills.
Moving away from audiences’ perception of him as a martial arts actor, Yen has recently declared Ip Man 4: The Finale (2019) to be his final Kung Fu film. He has been taking up more roles that challenge him. In 2017, he played notorious Hong Kong drug lord Crippled Ho, in Wong Jing’s film Chasing the Dragon. In 2020, he took up a more comedic role in Enter the Fat Dragon.
With Yen set on changing things up in Hollywood, it is apparent that we will see more Asians in non-conventional, positive roles. We will no longer be the comical foreigner, the ancient one, or the Shaolin master. An idealist like me likes to believe that one day, we might even see an Asian in roles that were offered to Bradley Cooper or Tom Hanks.
Relive his breakout role in the first Ip Man film on Netflix: